Julia Glass’s latest novel is “And the Dark Sacred Night.”
Because every woman has, or has had, a mother — and knows, if only through stories, her grandmaternal forebears as well — to become a mother is to step into a hall of mirrors. In its most essential state, however, motherhood involves a single, mutual reflection. You could even see the word “mother” as the contraction “m’other”: me attached, permanently yet not inseparably, to a resoundingly significant other; from the child’s perspective, the collision of my with other.
Just after my first son was born, a friend called because her preschool daughter was in that phase of longing to hold infants as fervently as preschool boys long to ride on tractors. Mid-conversation, my friend turned to her daughter and said, “I’m talking to Baby Alexander’s mommy!” An electrical charge passed through me, as if those words, once applied to me in the third person, cast a spell invoking countless promises, fears, fantasies and, inescapably, illusions to be shattered.
I was two months shy of turning 40. Like so many nick-of-time mothers, I hadn’t meant to wait so long. That I came late to this ordinary human condition led me to feel both irrationally proud and profoundly fearful. I’d had a solid decade in which to observe all the friends who became parents in a more timely fashion; like an anthropologist, I’d taken note of things that could go wrong, habits I admired and missteps I was certain I would never make. I also believed that because I held within me a war chest of life experience — lessons learned, losses endured, battles won — I would be able to share it with my child early on, as if I could spare him from learning, on his own, what it’s like to fall, fail, lose badly, win gracelessly, seek the wrong friends, hurt feelings, make stupid choices under pressure, wallow in grief, live through heartbreak, gather a lasting regret or two; and then to face the consequences.
I now stand at a threshold from which I look back on that benighted time with such volatile emotion that at moments I am overcome. Next fall, Baby Alexander’s Mommy will send 18-year-old Alec — a young man with wide shoulders, a trim beard, a deep baritone, a love of the piano and a fine knack for mimicry — to college. Thinking of all the mothers whose sons have gone off to war or to sea or to hop a freight, I know how privileged I am to face this gentle parting. Those 18 years have not passed in a flash; I’ve had more than my share of joy and fun. Yet I feel as if I’ve arrived at a private reckoning, an unavoidable summing up of all the things I hoped to teach this boy, share with him, imprint on his soul — alongside his father, I remind my grandiose self — and all the things I thought I would but didn’t. I linger on those I didn’t.
I did not teach him to keep a shipshape room, to write thank-you notes by reflex. I did not foster craft projects at the kitchen table or teach him to grow tomatoes. He did not learn to ice-skate. I had fantasies, when he was barely walking, that I would raise him to dress in a confidently nonconformist way, to converse easily with his elders, to love dancing. One day I would show him Paris, where I’d spent a year after college. Our family would memorize poems together, read aloud to one another from the classics. Alec would know Billie Holiday from Sarah Vaughan; cherish “The Sword in the Stone.” He would learn how to cook something other than a frozen pizza. Above all, we would accrue countless idiosyncratic traditions, unique to our tight-knit, ice-skating, bed-making, jazz-loving, Dickens-reading family.
Suffice it to say that I haven’t read Dickens since I was in high school. And honestly, what a peculiar list, right? What about teaching him compassion, generosity, introspection, circumspection, responsibility, rolling with the punches, laughing at the whims of fate? How about a firm handshake? (Does my son have a good handshake? I don’t even know!)
On Alec’s 18th birthday, I did something I’d thought about doing for years. I wrote him one of those in-case-I-get-hit-by-a-bus letters. Hoping to strike a tone midway between Ben Franklin and Dr. Seuss, I offered up a bunch of unsolicited life advice, acknowledging that he might not even want to look at all this embarrassing balderdash until 10 years from now. My allegedly sage counsel ranged from crucial forms of respect (being on time; being a good listener) to a virtual checklist for the choice of a mate (as if it’s a shopping expedition). Be a volunteer, I told him. Learn to express gratitude, sorrow, fear, affection. Apologize. Forgive. Hang on to old friends. Treasure your brother. And yes, learn how to cook.
I elaborated on some items, let others stand for themselves. I left the letter on his desk. I have no idea if he even opened it; a combination of bashfulness and cowardice prevents me from asking. (He could probably sense that it did not contain a check. I gave him a card along with his gifts and his favorite dessert: icebox cake, a relic from my 1960s childhood that I remembered, and resurrected, only recently.)
Eighteen years and I still haven’t learned: The one thing a mother cannot do for her children is live the hard stuff or even carve out a shortcut. What that letter to my son contains, more than anything, are clues about his mother’s dreams and fears, vanities and insecurities, strivings and humblings: a map of the terrain she’s crossed, especially the steep and the rugged. If he saves it, what he will always have is a slantwise portrait of the mother I imagined and hoped I could be.
This Mother’s Day, I’ll be on the opposite coast from my sons and their dad — and from my mother, too. I’ll be reading from my new book in Danville, Calif., while back in Massachusetts the assorted members of my two families will probably be just as glad not to go through the motions of a holiday in which none of us fully believe. Through my childhood, in fact, the second Sunday in May passed like any other. “Mother’s Day,” my father was fond of declaring to me and my sister, “is just a cunning invention of Fanny Farmer candies, Hallmark cards and the florist industry. You should appreciate your mother every day.” Not until my 20s did I begin to observe, and feel guilty about, all the brunches and bouquets and missives of adoration my peers lavished on their moms. Imagine my mother’s bemusement when suddenly I began to mark the day with calls and cards, even the random potted plant.
Once, when I phoned and Dad answered, I said (amnesiac me), “Did you do something special for Mom today?” He said: “Why? She’s not my mother.” Which reminded me, piercingly, that my father lost his mother in his early teens — and led me to wonder if the true reason we’d shunned the niceties of Mother’s Day had little to do with unbridled commerce.
Readers tell me that my novels are filled with significant mothers. Do I realize this? Do I do it on purpose? The truth is, I don’t. I think of myself as a writer of family stories. I write more often than not from a male point of view, and I usually begin by focusing on siblings, spouses, even fathers, before I think about the mothers. (Maybe, when I look in that direction, the light is just too bright.) But the mothers will have their say. Mothers always do. It occurs to me that in the web of what-ifs I spin in each story, I am sometimes trying out or even trying on different ways of fulfilling this role, whether my characters are exemplars to whom I could never live up or cautionary tales above which I hope to rise.
A few years ago, Alec and his younger brother, Oliver, became inexplicably smitten with the 1996 movie “Mother.” Albert Brooks plays a middle-aged, twice-divorced, blocked sci-fi writer who goes home to live with his self-sufficient, emotionally aloof mother (an exquisitely cast Debbie Reynolds) who has adamantly repurposed his room and has no desire to give it back. Over dozens of viewings, both boys howled at the friction caused by the generation gap between the Depression-era mom and the Spago-era son. On car trips, at friends’ homes, they would rehash scenes and quote lines from the movie with glee. (“Look under the protective ice, dear.”)
Of course, like all the best comedies, it’s serious, too: Suppose a grown man could revisit his childhood, unearth the secrets to his mother’s past and change the way they see each other? What I find so moving is that it shows how, in fact, a mother’s job never is done. If I’m lucky enough to see the day when my sons are living independently, maybe with families of their own, I’ll still be wondering how I can be a better mother and worrying about the things I overlooked back when they lived under my roof. Not that I’ll ever repurpose their rooms. No way.